COP26: The Opening Days

Wednesday, November 3, 2021 - 12:00



Bulletin number 1

The first few days of a COP is all about finding one’s way around the labyrinth of locations designed to cope with a meeting of 195 countries, each with its own agenda and priorities. For the host country their logistics end at the point at which delegates enter the building. Thereafter the United Nations take over the administration and security. This works well in most COPs but comes under severe stress when a particularly big event comes along. COP15 in Copenhagen was one such event and COP26 in Glasgow is shaping up to match it. The queue for entry each morning is around an hour as the security checks prove incapable of handling the crowds that descend on the venue. The first check is fine. The 25,000 registered participants are required to upload a negative Covid test on the National Health Service website each morning, and this must be displayed on phones or paper. The third check on accreditation is also rapid. The lost hour comes from the queue for the security machines, and this seems likely to worsen as numbers build up, making this a difficult COP for many.
The first week is also one in which few decisions are made. The Heads of Government get their allotted 3 minutes to extoll their efforts in tackling climate change. Of course, only good news is imparted. The broken promises are seldom acknowledged, and the new promises are presented as if they were already achieved. The long list of speakers, ranging from the host Boris Johnson, and various Princes, Presidents, Sheiks and Prime Ministers all expressed the view that the world was running out of time or “digging our own grave” as the Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres starkly put it.

One of the big decisions this week was an agreement, involving approximately 100 countries, that a global cut of 30% in emissions of the extremely potent gas methane would be achieved by 2030. This was a bit unexpected and had been brokered by the US and EU in advance of the summit. It reflected the seriousness now given to methane reductions following the recent IPCC report. In signing up to this, Ireland’s Taoiseach Micheál Martin however disavowed Ireland’s responsibility to match this target. It’s the kind of response, emphasising national self-interest, that has bedeviled progress in tackling climate change for a generation and more. Promises and pledges play well on the international stage, but they are for others to implement when national politics intervene.

Of course, the COP has its stalwarts: John Kerry and Al Gore from the US, Xie Zhenhua from China, and our own Mary Robinson. The celebrities from Hollywood also feature – so far Leonardo DiCaprio has been spotted. However, it is Greta and David Attenborough who attract the biggest crowds and provide a contrast between the dry language of position papers and the reality of the emergency the world faces. But perhaps the real contrast is between the negotiators in their sober business suits and the activists of civil society. This year civil society and observers are being excluded as never before from entry to open plenary sessions on ‘Covid’ grounds. This is particularly unfortunate for what is the largest ever contingent of Irish NGOs who have at their own expense made the journey and faced up to the sometimes-exorbitant accommodation demands made of them.

The most disappointing news so far is that India, the world’s 3rd largest polluter, will not target achieving Carbon neutrality for half a century and China, the world’s 1st, not before 2060. Unless these positions change over the next week it is difficult to see the objective of “Keeping alive the 1.5” succeeding. It’s such a contrast to the likes of Denmark which aims for a 70% reduction in emissions by 2030. Perhaps the most poignant statement of their predicament came from the tiny Marshall Islands, a nation that sits just two metres above sea level. Will they be there in 50 years they ask? Is it acceptable to write off a country, is a question we in the developed world might well consider?

Bulletin number 2. The End of Week 1

For those not privileged enough to be accredited with the ‘access all areas’ Party badge, the main attraction of the COP is the opportunity to visit the various national and climate organisation pavilions. A vast array of these exists, some, such as those from the oil producing countries, seem more designed to showcase the country rather than its efforts to tackle climate change. Others are heavily laden with vegetation and spectacular moving imagery on massive display screens, and staffed by helpful individuals sometimes in colourful national dress. Most offer a programme of talks and panel sessions, this year involving hybrid combinations of public, zoom and streaming presentations which can be heard over the background din of the hall using headphones. The EU, US, and Science Pavilions are particularly useful with senior politicians usually making an appearance. Scotland has a separate pavilion from the UK this year and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been a prominent panellist and speaker at this. A new element this year has been the addition of a methane pavilion reflecting the recent advice of the IPCC that “Strong, rapid and sustained reductions” in methane emissions are needed as well as slashing CO2 in the next two decades, to keep a 1.5oC warming limit within reach.

A notable absentee this year is the Chinese pavilion. There is a small corporate China facility which appears privately sponsored  (which seems a bit anomalous!) but no large scale presence along the lines of former years. Neither is there the large Chinese delegation so prominent of Madrid or Katowice. Russia is likewise not conspicuous at the COP and this gives cause for concern as to how much involvement these large emitters will have in any final agreement.

The week culminated in the massive protest marches conducted through the streets of a very rain-soaked Glasgow. 100,000 plus converged on the city centre in what was a well behaved and orderly affair. The larger than usual Irish contingent was prominent in an event that took a long time to pass from the assembly point in Kelvingrove park into the centre of the city. Public transport and road closures were consequences to be overcome for ordinary Glaswegians trying to go about their everyday activities, but good humour and forbearance were in evidence for all. A feature of the demonstration this year was the participation of faith groups, in particular Ireland’s Laudato Si group. Pope Francis’ publication of his encyclical Laudato Si just before the Paris COP was an influential factor in achieving the Paris Agreement and the Laudato Si group have continued to thrive in Ireland over the past 6 years. It was particularly welcome to see Bishop Martin Walsh of Kilmore marching with the Irish group for 6 hours yesterday.

The coming week will bring a shift from talking about where countries are positioning themselves to seeing what concessions will be agreed. It is most unlikely these will be enough to address the seriousness of the climate emergency or the demands of the young people and civil society activists present. But 4 issues will dominate. Firstly the finalisation of the rules of the Paris Agreement (yes 6 years afterwards!) as regards how carbon trading will be regulated and whether the unused credits from 10 years ago that some countries still possess can be activated to allow them to continue increasing their emissions in coming years. Secondly, what recompense can developing countries look to receive to offset the climate change-related losses and damages they are being inflicted with as a result of the pollution inputs mainly from developed countries? Thirdly, will we see the promised $100B a year that is supposed to help developing countries develop sustainably, especially by avoiding coal and other fossil fuel based energy systems? Signs are this will not happen before 2023, some 14 years after it was first promised. The figure is incidentally about half of what goes in the way of fossil fuel subsidies per year. Trust is the element in short supply, not least given the host’s recent record as regards international agreements, and the next few days will demonstrate whether the COP model will work, or whether we need to rethink a system that depends on unanimity among almost 200 countries.

Bulletin number 3. Moving Day

During the latter stages of a golf tournament, some commentators have started referring to what they call the ‘moving day’ when the shape of the final leaderboard begins to crystallise out from the background pack. It’s a bit like that at COPs. The posturing of the World Leaders is long over, and the positioning of national negotiators has now been well established over the past week. Now that the political leaders in the form of Ministers have arrived, the end game has begun.

The UK Presidency has now issued a draft document incorporating a range of decisions they envisage as possible, and it is now up to the various parties to accept or reject various aspects. At first sight this is a very positive document that encompasses several progressive elements. Progress has clearly been made by the many negotiating teams. For the first time anyone can remember, the document makes an explicit reference to fossil fuels and ‘Calls upon Parties to accelerate the phasing out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels.” Usually, the inclusion of the word fossil fuels is blocked, and this may be a portent of the pressure which is being put on recalcitrant oil producing countries by the overwhelming majority of the 196 nations represented here. Elsewhere the document “Stresses the urgency of increased ambition and action in relation to mitigation, adaptation and finance in this critical decade to address gaps between current efforts and pathways in pursuit of the ultimate objective of the Convention and its long-term global goal.”

Positive statements are also evident concerning the need to step up efforts to adapt to future climate stresses and to scale up the provision of finance from developed to developing countries. This is to enable them to handle the increased impacts being imposed on them through the historical greenhouse gas emissions of the developed countries. Allied to this is an acknowledgement that such impacts will increase significantly with further warming. Up until today no country has gone much further than acknowledging there is a problem. However, Scotland yesterday changed the status quo by announcing a nominal financial commitment to loss and damage reparations. Other countries will now be considering their position on this.

The Irish non-governmental contingent has met over the past day with Minister Ryan and his colleagues in DECC. Minister Coveney was also present today. In what was a useful exchange of information there are mutual benefits in that both sides can provide insight into what is going on at a macro level and what are likely to be key sticking points. These certainly remain and include: How countries can be persuaded to retire their overhang of unused past allowances from the Kyoto era a decade ago and which, if used now, would facilitate large emitters such as Australia and Brazil to offset their future emissions.
To persuade the major emitters such as China and India to tighten their targets towards 2030 their net zero target towards 2050 in line with most countries
To convince developing countries that the promise to mobilise $100B to aid their sustainable development based not on fossil fuel energy sources will materialize of course, it is important to remember that these are only draft proposals and are subject to modification and removal in the final analysis. The next 24-48 hours will determine if COP26 will provide momentum for the more radical changes that are implied necessary in the IPCC reports or will be remembered as Copenhagen Mark 2. Truly, this is crunch time, perhaps epitomized by an emotional Mary Robinson who stressed you can’t negotiate with science and conveyed the reality that some of the leaders who could do most are not in crisis mode. Calling out China, Russia, Brazil and Australia, and oil-rich producing country Saudi Arabia, she identified those countries most likely to water down the draft over the next couple of days. Listening to this veteran campaigner close to tears was a reminder that this was a ‘moving day’ in more ways than one.

John Sweeney, Emeritus Professor, Geography
Maynooth Green Campus